Can Naveen Patnaik keep his unbeatable record intact in 2019?

By Soumyajit Pattnaik

As we bid goodbye to 2018, Odisha politics stands at a critical juncture. The prophesies made in 2017 about the emergence of BJP as a frontrunner for the 2019 elections are yet to be translated into reality. The whopping 40,000+ margin, with which the BJD won the Bijepur by-election in early 2018, has ignited hopes of a record 5th term for Naveen Patnaik as CM.

The Congress is upbeat after the party dislodged BJP Governments in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh and the renewed vigour shown by the party can halt the consolidation of anti-BJD votes solely in the BJP. No prizes for guessing the party which will gain the most in Odisha if a triangular contest dominates the political landscape in 2019.

As we step into 2019, it’s pertinent to analyse whether the BJP can rewrite the political script in Odisha? Has the BJP grown at the expense of the BJD in Odisha? The BJP’s vote share has no doubt increased in Odisha, but it’s mostly at the expense of the Congress. In Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, Congress won as its vote share increased at the expense of the BJP.

In 2013, the BJP vote share was 45.17% in Rajasthan and in 2018, it dropped to 38.8%. In comparison, the Congress vote share in Rajasthan rose from 33.07% in 2013 to 39.3% in 2018. There was nearly a 7% drop for the BJP and nearly 6% gain for the Congress in Rajasthan now in comparison to the 2013 polls. It is thus evident the Congress gained clearly at the BJP’s expense.

Similarly in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP vote share dropped from 45.19% in 2013 to 41% in 2018. In comparison, the Congress vote share rose from 36.79% to 40.9% in 2018. Once can clearly see a 4% drop in vote share for the BJP in MP and nearly a 4% gain for the Congress in 2018 in comparison to the 2013 Assembly polls.

In this backdrop, is the vote share of the BJD coming down? And is the BJP gaining at the expense of the BJD in Odisha? In 2014 Assembly elections, the BJD had got 43.35% of the votes followed by 25.71% for the Congress and 18% for the BJP. There is no doubt that the BJP vote share has increased both in Zilla Parishad polls of 2017 and Bijepur by-election in early 2018.

But the BJP is mostly gaining at the expense of the Congress. It’s evident from the Bijepur by-election results. In Bijepur by-poll held in February 2018, the BJD got 56.61% of the votes compared to 33.53% for the BJP and only 5% for the Congress. In all the elections held to Urban Local Bodies after the Bijepur by-election, the BJD has been able to keep the BJP at bay.

Thus the statements of Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan that there is an irresistible desire for change among the Odisha voters have not been substantiated by statistical evidence so far. At this juncture, the BJP is looking up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi solely to win the elections in Odisha.

Like chief minister Naveen Patnaik, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also a formidable force in Odisha politics. But few State BJP leaders who are basking in the reflected glory of PM Modi seem to have squandered away the momentum gained after the Panchayat polls. These myopic state leaders focussed more on intra-party rivalry rather than external challengers. The resignations of Dilip Ray and Bijoy Mohapatra from the BJP clearly demonstrate that the internal rumblings within the party have not abated yet. It will be foolhardy to expect that the BJP will emerge unscathed from this internecine feud at this juncture.

Can PM Modi emerge as the sole saviour of the State BJP and bring the party to power in Odisha with his charisma? The PM has intensified his campaign in Odisha and within a space of two weeks, the PM will be addressing another public meeting again at Baripada on January 5. The PM lambasted the Odisha Government at the Khurda rally on December 24 by raising issues like chit fund and PC. The PM also sought answers from the State Government on “who’s feeding the demon of corruption in Odisha”? Of course, the PM didn’t utter the name of Naveen Patnaik or BJD Government during his entire speech at Khurda.

The PM can launch a blistering attack against the performance of the Odisha government again on January 5 at Baripada. But the PM must realise that when he castigates the State government’s 18-year performance, he inadvertently also questions the BJP’s contribution too as the saffron party was a partner in the alliance government in Odisha from 2000-09.

Since simultaneous elections will be held in Odisha for Assembly and Lok Sabha polls in Odisha, the BJP’s CM face in Odisha will also be a major factor to swing votes in the party’s favour in 2019 polls. While the Modi charisma attracts voters towards the BJP in Odisha, the arrogance and abrasive style of those, who project themselves as the party’s de facto CM face, repel voters in equal measure.

Apart from launching renewed attacks against the State Government during his public meetings, the PM can delve into the internal dynamics of Odisha BJP to fathom the reasons why the BJP lost momentum in 2018. The expectations were especially huge for the BJP after the 2017 Zilla Parishad polls, but the BJD made a stunning comeback with the Bijepur by-election which was followed by a slew of triumphs in ULB polls.

Naveen Patnaik has set his sights on yet another consecutive term. Can he keep his invincible record intact in 2019? After hosting the blockbuster Hockey World Cup at Bhubaneswar, Naveen is now shifted focus entirely on the KALIA scheme. Experience has taught him the hard lessons that glittering events may add to the government and state’s image within the country and abroad, but they are not sufficient to determine the outcome of elections.

As the countdown for 2019 has begun in right earnest, agrarian and rural distress will determine both LS and Assembly poll results in 2019. With a slew of welfare schemes like Aahar, Jaga, BSKY, KALIA and Khushi under his belt, it’s still Advantage Naveen for 2019.

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